Last night I felt myself gripping the wheel too tight. I felt something—lets call it fear—squeezing my chest, which leaves fingerprints on my wheel, knuckles getting white, breathing short and shallow. Sometimes, when no one’s in the car with me, my mind starts bullying me: what if I don’t get enough tonight? WTF is wrong with me? Why aren’t I smarter, better, more successful, etc? I count all the mistakes I’ve made in my life like sheep, putting me to sleep. Sometimes when that happens, I open an app called Prana Breath, plug in my ear buds, and drive around doing pranayama (deep breathing exercises). Anything to shut the mind up and take in some life. I selected a breathing pattern that induces “calm” and did it for 20 minutes while driving through rush hour. Then my rideshare app dinged, and I went to pick up the passenger, a young 30-ish woman shrouded by the miasma of a sad old lady.
Its amazing all the subtleties you can feel in a car, even when no one is talking. Often, when people get in the car, you can feel their whole life climb in with them. Some people’s luggage is heavier than others.
The woman was wrapped tight, as if something had drawn a noose around her spirit. Over her eyes sat a cloudy squall, so she couldn’t make eye contact. As I watched her in the rear view mirror, her eyes darted all over the place the entire 23 minutes. Her conversation didn’t unfolded in layers like most people. It was more like a pinball machine, her eyes following thoughts as they ricocheted about. I decided to keep it light, complimenting her neighborhood. “Yeah, it’s the only thing in my life I love right now”, she muttered. I pinned a little red flag on that comment in my mind. She talked about her dog having some sort of OCD, which she suspects is the fault of her ex. That’s how pets love us: They give up their freedom to become the landing pad for our neurosis, soaking up our repressed or disowned pain. “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself,” said DH Lawrence. She began venting about her job, how unhappy she was, how she’s tired all the time. “Are you depressed”, I asked her? She answered by not answering, the pinball in her mind rambling frantically in a way that sounded like “YES PLEASE HELP ME!”
I got right to the point: “What’s troubling you?” and, without skipping a beat, she blurted out, ”My father died two weeks ago”.
Yeah, sometimes people get in your car and they’re dealing with cancer, or they’re going thru a divorce, or their father just died. When you realize that, they’re no longer “a fare” and you don’t have room to feel sorry for yourself. Her father was diagnosed with cancer two months ago, and the death was sudden. She’s thousands of miles from her family, alone with her grief, so she and her sisters are on the phone fighting with each other every day because anger feels better than sadness. As she’s talking, her speech is speeding up, the pinball is shooting through the machine with greater velocity.
I offered condolences and tried to get her focused on self-care. I asked her, “What are you doing for yourself?” This began a litany of excuses. I have all those excuses going, too. All the reasons why I don’t exercise and I don’t do my breathing practice and I don’t meditate. So I understood the way the pinball evades the levers. But in the midst of her rambling, in the middle of a sentence, I noticed she took a deep breath. I interrupted her and said, “Do that again.” “What?” I repeated, “take another deep breath.” She tried to brush the suggestion off, but I said, “No, really. Do it again.” There’s always that one moment the truth comes out, and this was it.
“I can’t,” she said. “If I take a breath, I might cry.”
I let that comment sink into silence for a moment, just to hear its echo. Then I told her, “It’s okay. We’ve got eight minutes to go, and you’re alone in here with me, You can cry.” I talked her through one deep breath. Then I guided her through another one, this time a little longer, and suddenly, as she exhaled, the damn burst, and the river began to flow. Her eyes took a seat in stillness. The miasma dissipated like clouds busting in the sky.
After a while, I said, “How about this: how about just two minutes a day, you sit and just breathe. Nothing else. Just two minutes.” I guided her through a very simple practice. I could see her struggling, fighting it, head shaking back-and-forth as if judging herself. “I can’t do it,” she complained. “I can’t stop the thoughts.” That’s what we all say. “Look”, I said… “Screw this idea of ‘stilling the mind.’ That’s not gonna happen. Think of it this way: here’s a break for you. Here’s one moment during the day when you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to be right. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to ‘still your thoughts’. You don’t have to do a damn thing but BREATHE. Just two simple minutes not to have to do anything. Take a vacation from judging yourself. That’s all it is.”
Before getting out of the car, she stopped for a moment and paused. She leaned her head back in. “Thank you,” she said. “This was a very helpful cab ride.”
Yeah, I thought. For me, too. Thank you.
I relaxed my grip on the wheel for the rest of the night.
*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities.
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